I remember best his eyes, staring from the tintype, full of malice. A fleeting expression to be so well captured by a slow exposure. The hatred must have become etched upon his face near the end, when he went into the lake with the curse in his mouth.
But I’m ahead of myself. This tale begins over a hundred years later, on an early autumn day in 1995. My mother dragged my sister and I to her ancestral home, far away from the noise and race and crowds of Manhattan. I thought the Catskills were the ends of the earth, so silent and shadowed were the woods about the place, so wild and empty the hillsides, so clear and fragrant the dusk winds sighing over the lake, rich with the heady perfumes of summer’s end.
The house, Mother said, was a Victorian monstrosity. She was right. This was no gingerbread house charmingly painted to entice visitors, but a mansion built of cold stone during the heyday of American steel. Though parts, it was said, dated as far back as the Dutch settlements. The grounds once rivaled any European estate. Gardens, now overgrown and tangled, sloped toward the reedy banks of the lake. A wooden chair on stilts, presumably for a lifeguard, listed to the side.
The interior was slightly less neglected. Only a handful of rooms were still in use. The rest were locked. Among shadows and household staff as dusty as family relics, Mother presented herself to the old woman.
From the wheelchair beside a cavern-sized fireplace, the old woman said, “Helena?”
“It’s Louise, Gramma.” Mother weaved through threadbare chairs and fringed lamps to stand before the wheelchair, as jumpy as a defendant approaching a judge.
The old woman raised a twisted white hand to shield her eyes; the afternoon light slanted through windows fifteen feet tall. “Mary Louise,” she croaked. “You’re the spitting image of my sister, God help you.”
My sister and I hovered on the parlor’s threshold. Lex’s earphones thrashed and boo-hooed, and her nose wrinkled at the stink of old-woman decay. Me? I stood as stiff as a post, trying to become invisible. I clenched my teeth against the taste of illness and peered around the room with my eyes alone. Swans on the wing were molded into the ceiling coffers, on the rug under my feet, in the brass hooks that held back the drapes.
“What are those?” The old woman was glaring toward the entry. I glanced over my shoulder, back into the foyer, at the curving stair and the silent butler standing near the door, then I realized Gramma Johns was referring to my sister and myself.
“My girls, Gramma,” said Mother.
“I thought you had sons.”
“It’s John Patrick who has the boys. Twins, remember? I told you on the phone.”
“Damn,” Gramma Johns muttered. “If I had known, I would have sent for your brother instead.”
“John Patrick’s in Germany. He’s stationed there, remember?”
The old woman’s mouth pinched into a prune and she flapped a hand at us. Lex clomped forward, resentful of being inspected like a piece of china; I followed on tiptoe. Mother pointed at Lex’s earphones and mouthed, “Off.” Lex returned a sullen frown, but slid the earphones down around her neck and punched a button on the CD player hooked to her belt-loop. She did it without looking at the device, like a gunfighter slinging his six shooter back into the holster.
“This is Alexandra,” Mother said.
The old woman pressed herself deeper into her wheelchair, suspecting, perhaps, that my sister had crawled out of a graveyard: she was a sight in black lipstick, black eye-shadow, a black lace blouse, a ragged pair of green fatigues with steel grommets and hip chains, and scuffed boots with soles six inches thick. Lex had bleached her hair and hadn’t brushed it since Kurt Cobain died.
“Quite the lady, aren’t you?” Gramma Johns said, consonants clipped. “How many ear piercings does a girl need? How old are you?”
“Seventeen?” Lex snapped around a wad of pink gum.
“Damn,” the old woman repeated.
Lex glowered at Mother. “Do we have to stay here?”
Mother pulled Lex aside and whispered in her ear, and the old woman aimed that disapproval at me. “And who might you be?”
“J … Joss,” I said.
“What sort of name is that for a girl?”
“Jocelyn,” Mother said.
“I’m twelve,” I said, hoping it would earn greater favor than seventeen had earned Lex.
“Is your hair out of a bottle too?”
My hand reached reflexively for my pigtail. “My daddy’s blond,” I said. She couldn’t blame the color on me now.
Red-rimmed eyes swiveled up at Mother. “And where is Michael?”
Mother’s shoulders slouched. She glanced aside, where a liquor cabinet beckoned. “He’s gone.”
“Run off. We finalized the divorce last month.”
“Another woman,” Gramma Johns stated.
“We don’t talk about it,” Mother snapped, looking at Lex and me from the corner of her eye.
The old woman clucked. “Secrets, secrets. We Swanns tend to keep our secrets like jewels. Well, I suppose that’s what comes of a Swann marrying a Baker … a Smith, what is it again?”
“Tanner,” Mother said, teeth hard together.
“You might as well change back your name, Mary Louise.”
“I don’t think so, for the girls’ sake.”
“Change theirs too. You’re Swanns first. As prominent as the Fitzgeralds were in my time, I kept my own name. I am Joanna Swann-Fitzgerald, and no one forgets my forebears or where we belong.”
“Of course, you’re right, Gramma Johns,” Mother appeased. “We should talk of this later. The girls and I would like to get settled.”
A porter hauled our luggage to a series of rooms on the second floor. The rooms had been aired out, but age yellowed the air like an old man’s teeth. I didn’t care. Each of the rooms was bigger than the apartment where we’d lived during the divorce. We would not trip over each other here. And my windows overlooked the gardens sloping down to the lake. A far cry better than staring across a narrow courtyard at the broken blinds of some other tenant. Smoldering autumn maples hemmed in the placid waters, and swans like gleaming pearls bobbed upon the sky’s reflection. I counted five white pearls. Two pairs swimming close together … and one drifting alone near the bank. Smug dancers at a ball and the lonely outcast.
“Did you see the swans, Lex?” I asked, following her down the stairs to dinner.
“Are you kidding?” she retorted. “There’re swans everywhere. Swans painted on my stupid ceiling—pink ones with pink cherubs and pink roses. Even the soap by the sink was shaped like swans. ‘No one forgets where we belong.’ Like we could if we tried. I hate this fucking place. Gives me the creeps. You know Mom said that two of her relatives drowned in that lake.”
I stopped on the landing. “She did?”
Lex reversed a couple of steps, clunking in her big boots. Her black-painted lips whispered, “One of them was her second cousin. Mom was younger than you when it happened. Fiona was her name.”
“Did she fall in?”
Lex got a wicked grin on her face. “What do you think, stupid? If you were accused of murdering your own daughter, what would you do? This house has ‘haunted’ written all over it.” She gave an exaggerated shudder and continued down.
My hand clutched the banister. I took a second look at the portraits lining the stairwell. Before my sister’s attempt to terrorize me, the bejeweled women had seemed elegant, the suited men merely stern or old or ugly. But now, every faint smile told of secret sins, and the black family eyes, watching me from gilded frames, harbored deceit.
“Swanns, all of them Swanns,” said Gramma Johns. A nurse rolled the wheelchair from the old woman’s rooms and into the foyer. She seemed to favor the double-knit suits that had gone out of fashion a decade before I was born. Over the polyester jacket lay a fringed shawl pinned with a fake orchid. “The girl in the blue gown, you see? With the rosettes in her hair? That’s me, believe it or not. I was eighteen. What do you think? Wasn’t I beautiful?”
“Yes, yes, you were,” I muttered, amazed that it was the truth. Should I ask which lady drowned in the lake, which was murdered by her own mother? I hesitated too long.
Gramma Johns flapped her hand. “Come along. I won’t be kept from dinner by a gawking little girl.” The nurse rolled the chair through a lighted doorway; my fingers loosened upon the banister and I followed, feeling the shadows slide across the floor after me.
Mother was already seated at a long mahogany table, dark hair gathered neatly at her nape in a yuppie-style clip-on bow. A tumbler of amber whiskey sat beside her plate. Gramma Johns spied it at once. “Drink before dinner, do you?”
Mother rolled her eyes. “It’s how I stay so thin. I eat less.”
“You’re too thin.” Gramma’s nurse pushed the wheelchair up to the head of the table. “You’ve not taken care of yourself, Mary Louise.”
“I prefer just Louise.”
“Nonsense. My son named you after your mother, so Mary Louise I’ll call you. Though Mary Ann was fond of the drink too, if I recall. It was a Van Leeuwen trait, not a Swann. The Swanns know their limits.”
“I’m a Tanner.”
Gramma Johns harrumphed. “Not anymore.”
Lex slammed her hand on the tablecloth. “Will you get off her back?”
“Alexandra!” Mother snapped.
“It’s ‘Lex,’ Mary Louise,” retorted my sister.
“I’ve had enough.” Lex shoved back her chair. “From Queen Bitch here. We don’t answer to her. Who does she think she is?”
Mother paled, like she was about to faint. I felt my mouth hanging open. In her wheelchair, Gramma Johns shook with laughter. “Against an attitude like that, even a dead man might flee. Yes, I do believe he would. Hmm. You may be out of danger after all, Mary Louise. Sit down, Lex.”
My sister looked bewildered, but she complied. Mother tipped up the tumbler and emptied it. I glanced at my napkin, pretending I didn’t see. “Don’t worry. My daughters are not in danger.”
“Is that what I said?”
The cook wheeled in a cart laden with bowls of green soup. My twelve-year-old mind imagined snot and slime and the innards of a zombie from the Sci-Fi Channel, but Mother said it was just split-pea soup. Gramma Johns slurped through her dentures, nodded approval and dismissed the cook. She resumed, “No, what I meant is that Lex might scare danger away from you. Though I can’t imagine danger taking an interest in you Tanners. Tell me, Mary Louise, do you swim?”
Mother dropped her soup spoon. The black bow looked like a ten-armed creature stuck to the back of her head. “You’ve lived alone with memories too long, Gramma.”
“Answer me, girl.”
Mother heaved a heated sigh. “Daddy made sure I learned. Stop worrying.”
“Hnh. Well. Maybe you’ll live to be as old and decrepit as I.” She finished her bowl of pea soup, slurping, slurping, then motioned for the salad course. While the cook served us greens with candied pecans, Gramma Johns peered around the candlestick at me and asked, “Are you inquisitive, child?”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“Do you poke your nose into other people’s business?”
I shrugged. “Not too much, I guess.”
“Then you know what killed the cat?”
“Curiosity killed the cat. Everybody knows that.”
“Oh, no, child. It was the swan.” When she saw that her riddle stumped me, she laid her head back and laughed and laughed and laughed.
* * *
“You should not have brought them, Mary Louise.” The whispers roused me. The strange day and the heavy food had taken their toll; I lay curled up on the divan in the front parlor, a blanket tucked under my chin.
“What else was I supposed to do with my kids? Leave them with that womanizer? Besides, you can see what city life has done to Lex. I was afraid for Joss.”
“Do they respect you?”
Mother grew silent. I cracked open my eyes. A fire roared in the cavernous fireplace; the light sparkled in mother’s empty tumbler. She held it on the arm of her chair and stared into it. She didn’t know I was awake. After dinner I had been too afraid to go upstairs, past those sinister portraits and the mysterious shadows lurking in doorways. And I could trust Lex only to terrorize me more.
The old woman’s frail spotted hands gripped the arms of her wheelchair, pulled her upright. “Do they, Mary Louise?”
“Joss isn’t so bad yet,” Mother said. “Are you suggesting I beat the fear of the devil into them?”
“Fear of their mother should be enough.” Gramma Johns settled back; in a weary sort of way she added, “The devil is no trouble. Hasn’t been since Fiona died. I have him locked in a box. That one, there on the mantelpiece. You know what I’m talking about.”
Ever so subtly I shifted my head, but the fire cast the mantel and its gaudy clocks and figurines into shadow. There were hints of glass and silver and nothing else.
“I won’t be frightened by–”
“Don’t be a fool. Helena refused to believe it and look what happened to her family. You haven’t forgotten Amelia Jane, your cousin, have you?”
“Of course not. I was there. She wore white.”
“Oh, God.” Gramma Johns pressed swollen knuckles to her mouth. Her eyes squeezed shut and she shook her head, but the memory was insistent. “She said she wanted the gown to look like the one in that movie, the Hitchcock. That gold dress.”
“To Catch A Thief.”
“Yes. Amelia drew it out on paper, and Helena hired a seamstress. But in the end Amelia had that dress made out of white satin. Swan white, she said. That was the last midsummer’s ball we held. It was all his fault. He ruined the two of them. Helena wouldn’t listen to me. Then her daughter and granddaughter were dead. Fee and Amelia Jane both.” Gramma Johns wiped her eyes. “I convinced your daddy. I convinced all three of my boys. They left Westermere to keep their families safe.”
“Gramma–” Mother began with a sigh. It was the sound she made when she told Lex and me to behave. But Gramma Johns cut her off.
“You listen, girl. My Thomas’s children are the only two left. You and your brother inherit everything when I’m gone and it won’t be long. I have to know that all my pains of guarding this place weren’t in vain. You think I enjoyed living here alone after my boys left? After Gran’pa Johns died? But I had a responsibility. The ones who believe always do. I was mama swan sitting on the nest. And I was daddy swan watching for snakes in the grass. I have no choice but to trust you, Mary Louise. You and John Patrick, where ever in the damned world he is.”
Gramma Johns breathed deeply. A wheeze rattled in her chest. More subdued, she added, “We’ll go over the papers tomorrow. They’ll tell you about the accounts and property. I’m telling you about the box. That box must never be opened. What’s inside must never be seen. It’s the devil, I’m telling you.”
“If you’re that worried about it,” said Mother, “why haven’t you gotten rid of it? There’s the fire, burn it, Gramma.”
“Anything might happen then.” Her voice trembled. “It might set him loose. This cursed house might fall down around us. No, the key, Marie Louise. The key will guard you. I’ve worn the key for over twenty years. When I die, you’ll wear it. Tell your girls, that box is not to be touched. Make them heed you, Mary Louise. We’re counting on you. Amelia and Fee, all the others before them … we’re all counting on you–”
“All right!” Mother came out of her chair, glanced over at me, afraid she’d awakened me. My eyes were shut to slits. She paced beside her chair, arms hugged about her ribs. Did she actually believe what the old woman was saying? How could the devil fit in a box? Maybe Gramma’s sons fled Westermere because they thought her insane.
Mother snatched up her tumbler, strode to a service table in the shadows. Crystal clinked and then was silent. Mother returned to the fireplace, empty-handed. “I loved Amelia,” she said softly. “She read Keats to me. ‘His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve: soon among the ashes … rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve, and all night he kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.’ Or something like that.”
“I don’t need recitations, Mary Louise.”
Mother drooped into the chair, defeated. “I’ll go over the papers with you first thing in the morning.”
“And the box!”
“Yes, Gramma, I’ll tell them.”
* * * * *
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copyright 2014 Court Ellyn
None of the text may be reproduced or copied without the written permission of the author.